The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Did coronavirus lay bare inequalities? Not to those who were monitoring them before.

People wait in line as early primary voting begins Monday in Atlanta. (Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

Perhaps one of the biggest stories to come out of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting economic downturn is that of the inequalities that exist in America.

Headlines about people living in communities with fewer resources, working jobs with fewer benefits and seeking health care as they lack insurance coverage have become common in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

While discussing the topic of investment in transit infrastructure, Ariel Bierbaum, assistant professor of urban studies and planning at the University of Maryland, recently told The Washington Post: “It’s the ripple effects of inequality … the exacerbation of inequality at every level.”

But while some people tweet, write and speak about how the pandemic has exposed U.S. inequality, they essentially gloss over the fact that it is only some Americans — often, though not always, those with some degree of privilege — whose eyes are being opened to just how disadvantaged millions of other people are.

Those living in this country who are unable to fully experience the American Dream were attempting to draw attention to these issues for years before the first case of the novel coronavirus appeared stateside. And some of the experts closest to the issue are doubtful that revealing those inequalities to more people will lead to efforts to decrease them.

In his recent speech to graduates of historically black colleges and universities, former president Barack Obama said this:

Injustice like this isn’t new. What is new is that so much of your generation has woken up to the fact that the status quo needs fixing; that the old ways of doing things don’t work; and that it doesn’t matter how much money you make if everyone around you is hungry and sick; that our society and democracy only works when we think not just about ourselves, but about each other.

Let’s look at what we knew before the pandemic made matters worse, and what experts think might happen now that the challenges have been brought to light.

Rural America

Multiple reports show that rural Americans are positioned to struggle in significant ways as governments move to reopen, because they lack the health-care infrastructure to properly treat the virus.

The Post’s Eli Saslow reported in 2019 that rural America was underserved by hospitals. Those that do exist are often under-resourced. These hospital have disproportionately been affected by government cuts to Medicaid and Medicare reimbursement rates.

He wrote:

They also treat a higher percentage of uninsured patients, resulting in unpaid bills and rising debts. A record 46 percent of rural hospitals lost money last year. More than 400 are classified by health officials as being at “high risk of imminent failure.” Hundreds more have cut services or turned over control to outside ownership groups in an attempt to stave off closure.

Gbenga Ajilore, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said he has no confidence that the revelation that rural America is significantly under-resourced will lead to significant change.

“We knew that rural America was going to suffer more because of structural racism, environmental racism, the issue of the lack of infrastructure in the rural black South and native communities in New Mexico and elsewhere,” he told The Fix.

As news about who is being harmed disproportionately by the virus emerges, concern about it — and correcting the inequalities associated with it — are decreasing, he argued.

“Once people saw that it was disproportionately affecting black and brown people, the mentality of ‘It’s not our problem, that’s their problem,’ was prevalent,” Ajilore said. “And you saw all these protests in these state capitals that gives me less optimism that this news will lead to significant change.”

Hannah Jewell looks back at plague and yellow fever outbreaks in Europe and New Orleans, which revealed stark divides between the rich and poor. (Video: The Washington Post)


One reason black Americans have disproportionately suffered from covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is because they are more likely to live in housing that is older, filled with asbestos and made with other outdated materials that affect their breathing. A 2018 study by the Urban Institute found that the quality of housing that black Americans are more likely to live in causes respiratory illnesses such as asthma.

The study concluded:

  • Black households are more likely to have children with asthma and asthma-related emergency-department visits than their white counterparts.
  • Households with poor housing quality had 50 percent higher odds of an asthma-related emergency-department visit in the past year.
  • Poor housing quality and lack of homeownership could partially be responsible for racial and ethnic disparities in asthma outcomes. To reduce disparities, policymakers could focus on improving housing quality.

And if anything, inequalities in housing have presented a new challenge in the pandemic — holding on to existing housing.

With more people out of work, calls for landlords to cancel rent have increased across the nation as millions of unemployed people — particularly people of color — struggle to remain in their homes.

“The last foreclosure crisis was a slow-moving train; the impact in terms of people was over the course of several years,” Jesse Van Tol, chief executive of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, a research and advocacy coalition of 600 community organizations, previously told The Post’s Renae Merle. “Whereas the current moment, it’s all happening pretty quickly, 25 million, 30 million unemployed in a manner of a few weeks.”

Digital divide

As millions of students have been forced to complete their education at home, the lack of Internet access in the homes of thousands of kids is more obvious than ever.

This divide is one that the Pew Research Center sought to draw attention to in a May 2019 report:

Roughly three-in-ten adults with household incomes below $30,000 a year (29%) don’t own a smartphone. More than four-in-ten don’t have home broadband services (44%) or a traditional computer (46%). And a majority of lower-income Americans are not tablet owners. By comparison, each of these technologies is nearly ubiquitous among adults in households earning $100,000 or more a year.

Before the pandemic, Naomi Riley, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, attempted to bring attention to how different communities engaged technology. Her research showed that minority youths, youths from low-income households and youths from single-parent families spent more time online than white youths, youths from middle- and upper-income homes and youths in two-parent households. And she told The Fix that she fears that issue could get worse during the pandemic.

“My concern in this new pandemic world is that of course with schools closed, every child is spending more time with devices — that’s their primary way now, unfortunately, of interacting with the world. I think that what you’ll find though is that in households that have more resources, parents are going to be trying to counteract that, making sure their kids get outside for part of the day, taking walks, that they’re getting some kind of exercise, that they’re all having dinner together, doing more of that in-person interaction. Because I think for a long time, it’s been clear that there are clear detriments to spending so much time on screens. I think parents with more resources have long been aware of that.”

She added: “And I worry that you’re going to see kids in less-resourced homes spending even more time on screens and even less of that important face-to-face type of social interaction that we need with humans for intellectual and social development.”

Black-white unemployment gap

The economic downturn that has come as a result of the pandemic has led to significant increases in the unemployment rate. More than 38 million people have filed for unemployment in the past nine weeks. Black Americans have felt this at higher rates than white Americans, with the unemployment rate for black Americans being above the average — a reminder that the black-white unemployment gap existed long before the pandemic.

President Trump often boasted about the economy during his term, but he rarely acknowledged that black people still were not doing as well as white people.

Andre Perry, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, wrote about this last year:

“The stability of the national unemployment rate shouldn’t lull us into a false sense of economic security. The same metric forecasts a much different outlook for black people. ... Although economists consider the U.S. economy to be approaching full employment — a situation when there are more jobs than people — black Americans are experiencing unemployment at Great Recession-era levels. For many black Americans, the unemployment rate is significantly higher now than during the recession. While the national unemployment rate is the lowest in 50 years, this figure primarily reflects white employment dynamics.

Despite the increased focus on the inequalities of employment, Perry doesn’t think the administration will do much to address the disparity.

“Now we have an opportunity to see if Trump and his administration actually do care about the black community, and by their response to the pandemic, it looks like they absolutely do not care about black people,” he told The Fix. He pointed out that black businesses were not prioritized in the Cares Act despite data showing that minority businesses were disproportionately affected by the economic downturn.

“And there was no signaling, no action taken on the part of the president to correct that,” Perry added.

As the pandemic continues, disparities based on geography, race and socioeconomic status are likely to become more visible. But it is worth noting that these revelations aren’t breaking news the many people who have been trying to draw attention to inequities for years.